I’m six years old.
Lights are out so I slip from my bed and feel my way towards the door. Hearing a slight noise I see a young boy’s shadowy form in striped pyjamas emerging from the room next to mine. Without speaking he and I move to the middle of the landing and sit down opposite one another. I hitch my nightdress up slightly and reach forward, taking hold of both his hands, after which I press the soles of my feet against his. Giggling slightly under our breath we begin rocking back and forth, increasing the momentum until I feel myself being lifted off the floor. Spluttering and trying to hold in the giggles we suddenly halt, hearing a familiar padding sound of feet on the stairs. We bolt like lightning back to our rooms.
‘The seek’ is our secret. It’s a nightly ritual, an unspoken connection and comfort in the midst of trauma. It gives us a sense of empowerment in a situation where we have no say or influence in what’s happening to us. It binds us together and strangely, it strengthens us.
Our mum has been tricked into leaving the family home. “Go to your mother’s for a break, Ann,” Dad told her. “I don’t want you to leave,” I whispered to her in the dark as she tucked me up for the night. “I haven’t gone yet,” she replied. But then she went.
Straightaway she is replaced with another woman whose face I’ve never seen. “Don’t come back. I’ve got someone else in,” Dad writes to Mum.
And so begins four years of deep unhappiness for me and my brother, Andrew. Circumstances aren’t explained to us, future expectations not discussed. We are expected to go on with our lives with no clarification, no hugs or reassurance. My brother and I are placed into the hands of the new woman, Ella, with long painted nails and a big blonde wig, whom I will come to fear and later, hate.
Andrew and I spend most of our time in our ground-floor bedrooms. We’re afraid to venture out. We use the downstairs toilet, but today the toilet paper has run out. I’m too afraid of my stepmother to ask her for some. So I go to the toilet and spend the day wearing dirty knickers. I hide the soiled underwear in my cupboard but some time after Ella finds them – covered in maggots.
We’re often beaten for such behaviour and for sneaking into the kitchen at night to find food to supplement the small amount we’re given after school. We crave milk but aren’t allowed to have any at home. Then after a beating from Ella, something in me snaps. Sitting on my bed, aged 8, I glare up at her and, shaking with holding in the tears, I resolve I will never let her see me cry. I will never let anyone see me cry. I decide to never be a victim but to survive no matter what. I construct a hard psychological wall of self-defence and independence around myself. This is how I will cope.
I resolve I will never let her see me cry
Longing to escape
My brother and I knew we were neglected. One day, aged 8, I was on my way to see Dad’s adoptive mum, Grandma Webster, when I saw a baby sitting in a pram in a front garden. The baby was so clean, well-fed and happy. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to learn that people are cruel, that life is hard and bad things happen, that not everyone gets loved. I stepped up onto the garden paving and raised my right hand, bringing it down hard against the baby’s cheek. I waited with relish for the shock on its face and the shriek which, when it came, saw me sprinting along the street and down a passage to the back alley near Grandma’s house where I wouldn’t be seen. I knew what I’d done was wrong, but it satisfied something in me. I’d doled out some of what I’d been given and it felt good.
But then the miracle happened. We were told we could go and live with Mum. Suddenly light and love flooded into our lives. We lived at my maternal Grandmother’s bungalow on Scarborough’s elevated coastline, usually buffeted by strong North Sea winds, but sometimes wrapped in a gentle summer breeze. It couldn’t last. We were given a council house on a nearby tough estate. Social services provided the second-hand furniture, carpets and curtains – an old piano with ugly brass candlesticks on either end of its front panel. A black and white TV eventually came to stand in the corner. We twisted sheets of newspaper to make kindling for a hearth fire in the front room, and on dark winter mornings, before dressing, I warmed the cold pieces of my school uniform in front of the gas fire in the kitchen.
I wanted to escape from the estate. As I walked to my grandmother’s house I would cross the line between our council estate and the private houses. I enjoyed looking at the houses which appeared so neat, fresh and well-maintained. I felt I had entered a nicer world where things were possible instead of impossible. I often tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one of these houses. This was how my desire to escape the estate first began. I knew I had to find a way out.
Impact of divorce on children’s mental health
The role family breakdown plays in the causes of mental disorder is frequently unacknowledged. The causes of children’s mental health problems are often rooted in or sustained by the dynamics of family relationships. Research highlights the association between mental illness and coming from fractured, dysfunctional and fatherless families.
Family breakdown and conflict were considered by the Good Childhood Inquiry Report to have the biggest adverse impact on children’s well-being. Conflict between parents has been associated with an array of adjustment problems in children. The Inquiry found that children with separated, single or step-parents are 50 per cent more likely to fail at school, have low esteem, struggle with peer relationships and have behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression.
The National Child Development Study (which has tracked around 17,000 people born in Britain during one week in 1958 over the course of their lives) has recently shown that greater social acceptance of divorce has not reduced its impact on children. When outcomes for this group were compared with children born in 1970, children from both cohorts whose parents split up are equally likely to end up without qualifications, claiming benefits and suffering depression (and more likely than those from intact families).
Source: Centre for Social Justice Mental Health: Poverty, Ethnicity and Family Breakdown Interim Policy Briefing. February 2011.
Trauma and anger
My brother, Andrew, a fair-haired, fair-skinned, attractive child with a different nature to me, had been with me throughout all the changing circumstances of my childhood, yet it was hard to know precisely how he was impacted by events. He was interested in electrical circuitry and motorbike engines but there was no male role model or mentor to encourage or guide him in this, so he was left to tinker with these on his own. Aged 15 he began absenting himself from school, disappearing along a local mud track with a friend to shoot at cows and birds with an air rifle. Despite people’s efforts, he left school without a single qualification.
Aged 19 while on a Youth Opportunity Programme, he began to feel unwell, believing people could read his thoughts. His paranoia deepened into a psychosis which made it impossible for him to hold down his job at a holiday camp. A diagnosis of schizophrenia was made and he embarked on a life of dependency on antipsychotic prescription drugs. Except for one care assistant, who believed he exhibited all the characteristics of a traumatised child, no medical professional or social care employee linked his illness to childhood trauma.
Dad told me to tell you you’re no longer his daughter
I grew into an angry teenager. Rebellious and out of control, I held any form of religion in contempt and believed Christianity was a human construct, a form of social control. I refused to accept it. Local churches didn’t reach out to our community but Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and tarot card readers frequently targeted the estate.
Dad’s visits took place twice a year: in December for my birthday and in July for Andrew’s. At the age of 18 I felt I barely knew him and, having a summer job to go to, stayed away on the day of his visit. I didn’t see it as a big deal but he did. I returned home in the evening to hear my brother say as I entered the kitchen, “Dad told me to tell you you’re no longer his daughter.”
Dad can’t mean it, I told myself. But the weeks turned into months, then into years, and it became clear he had meant every word. I wanted to be reconciled but my only contact with him was through the law courts. He didn’t want to be found by me. With every change in my circumstances I wrote to him, hoping for a reply. None ever came.
Christian engagement in areas of social deprivation
It is encouraging to see the Church’s refreshed social conscience through projects and programmes aimed at alleviating the effects of disadvantage but many seem to be run at arm’s length from the communities they serve. Despite the image of incarnational ministry as radical and on trend, it remains the mission model of the few. The costs associated with relocating for the sake of the least, last and lost appear too high for the majority of Christians.
Among the exceptions to this is the Eden Network linked to The Message Trust. Through partnership with churches the Eden Network seeks to send and support missionaries who sacrificially share the gospel and show it in action.
Now entering its 20th year, Eden has deployed over 500 volunteers to live and serve in the nation’s most deprived communities and has just launched its 50th team.
18 of those teams have been plants focused on reestablishing local church at the heart of disadvantaged communities.
Who am I?
Following the troubles in my family I began asking searching questions about my identity. Who was I? What was the meaning and purpose of my life? Although critical of any religious expression, I had accidental near-death experiences which caused me to ponder whether I was being looked after in some indefinable way.
As a sixth form student I began to study philosophy. I liked the bigger picture thinking and found the subject thought-provoking, yet didn’t come away with definite answers. Once enrolled as an undergraduate student I noticed church-going was a feature of life at this particular university. I didn’t want to miss out on anything that was on offer, so my teenage scorn of church evaporated and I chose a church to go to, basing that choice purely on its location and architectural appearance.
I was searching for something meaningful, something significant, perhaps something I had never known before. I volunteered in the book and coffee shop, sang in the choir and got confirmed. I knew of no other way to attain a life of deeper meaning.
In 1985 family circumstances eventually led me to York where I sought out a church to go to. I was sure by now that I was a Christian of some description. But in the summer of 1986 during a walking holiday in Devon I suddenly felt overcome by a powerful and irresistible feeling that I had to return to York. I abandoned the holiday and returned there. Shortly after this, during a meal out, someone gave me a Christian booklet. It was the next morning when reading the booklet that I experienced a powerful and life-changing encounter with God. For the first time in my life I understood that the death and resurrection of Jesus had a personal application to me. That momentous day, Jesus Christ swept me into his life, turning mine upside down.
Nothing would ever be the same again. I would never be the same again. Meanwhile, attempts had been made for Andrew to live independently but nothing ever worked out, forcing him to return home. One day, feeling particularly unwell, he smashed a number of windows at the local shops and at the doctor’s surgery. He then called the police. Feeling unable to speak during the court hearing, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Armley prison in Leeds. Three months into his sentence his psychiatrist, seeing the injustice of the situation, managed to have him released. It was an experience that traumatised him so much that he continues to speak about it today. I have experienced the truth of the words, ‘God sets the lonely in families’
My desire to serve God led me to relocate to Botswana where I experienced the Father heart of God in unique ways. The process of healing from childhood trauma and fatherlessness which began when I became a follower of Jesus was now like deep heart surgery as I lodged with an older couple, David and Ruth Gould, who became my surrogate parents. While living with them in a little thatched cottage in a village overlooking Botswana’s capital, I was exposed to a radical Christian lifestyle such as I had not seen practised in the UK. There I experienced life in all its fullness and both human and divine fatherhood.
Now in his 50s, Andrew lives a marginalised life in Scarborough. His daily routine continues to be a merry-go-round of going for a walk to the local shops or into town, lying on his bed, smoking and drinking tea. A recent incident again landed him in court and caused him to be evicted from his accommodation and deemed a ‘risk’. As I write he faces the possibility of being placed in accommodation in one of Britain’s most dangerous and deprived communities: Grangetown near Middlesborough. The sorrows and injustices in his life appear to have no end but because of Jesus Christ, I now know I can fight for him.
In spite of my efforts over 34 years, Dad has never shown a willingness to be reconciled and has stuck to his declaration that I am no longer his daughter. This is something I have never been able to accept; hence my search for him continues and has recently revealed his approximate whereabouts: Willingdon, near Eastbourne. So the story continues…However, I could never have known that my father-loss and consequent search for the meaning and value of my life would eventually lead to God the Father revealing his loving heart towards me. I have experienced the truth of the words, “God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6) as I became a surrogate daughter to an exceptional man and later came to have a family of my own. “Not one sparrow will fall to the ground outside my Father’s care” (Matthew 10:29). This has been my experience and I am passionate for others to come to the same knowledge.
AMANDA PILZ is a freelance journalist. Coming Home to Dad: A journey from childhood trauma to wholeness (Instant Apostle) is available now